Stage Door Review 2023


Sunday, May 21, 2023


by Teater Patrasket, directed by Alex Byrne

Teater Patrasket, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto

May 20-22, 2023

Narrator: “What should Pinocchio do?”

The only show I was able to catch at this year’s Junior Festival at Harbourfront was Pinocchio by the Danish company Teater Patrasket. I’ve seen many version of the 1883 children’s novel by Carlo Collodi including the 2011 musical by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, the 2017 musical by Dennis Kelly at the National Theatre in London, the ballet Pinocchio from the same year by Will Tuckett for the National Ballet of Canada, the 1940 film from Disney and the 2022 film by Guillermo del Toro. Teater Patrasket’s version gets to the heart of the story better than any of these and is so imaginative in design and execution that it will appeal to both children and adults.

Teater Patrasket for its hour-long show does away with many aspects of the original tale. In its version Pinocchio is not carved from a magical block of wood. Instead, Geppetto has built him from the various odds and ends that he likes to collect. One thing Pinocchio doesn’t like when he gains consciousness is that one of his feet is made of wood and the other is a wheel from a toy penny-farthing bicycle. Teater Patrasket has no talking or singing cricket and no Blue Fairy (La Fata dai Capelli Turchini), who saves Pinocchio. Most significantly, Pinocchio is not transformed into a real boy at the end. The only supernatural intervention in Teater Patrasket’s version is when the puppet Geppetto has made inexplicably is granted life and consciousness.

Nathalie Mellbye’s set for Teater Patrasket’s version looks like a dilapidated circus tent. Various objects are scattered about the perimeter including a number of musical instruments. The largest object in the set looks like a rectangular wooden box tipped on one side. The lights go down and when they go up again we see three actors – Maria Myrgård, Dirck Backer and Signe Kærup Dahl – costumed by Christina Tidemand Greth to look like circus performers who have seen better days. They move apart and we see the fourth actor, composer and musician Bastian Popp, who is behind the box. He starts to play and we realize that the box is an old-fashioned pump organ. The women wear pants and Popp wears a calf-length tulle ballet skirt. No one comments on this by word or gesture, and this already provides a clue to Teater Patrasket’s vision of the story as an acceptance of differences.

Maria Myrgård functions primarily as the narrator and as the voice and manipulator of the child-sized puppet Pinocchio. Myrgård is very funny and just as we transfer her voice to the puppet we also regard her facial expressions as his. Teater Patrasket has structured the story around four dilemmas that Pinocchio faces that serve as lessons on how to behave.

When we reach one of those points, Myrgård comes downstage centre and addresses the audience, “Dilemma number one: What should Pinocchio do? Should he go to school or should he sell his schoolbook for a ticket to the circus?” What is so wonderful about this is that all the children know exactly what Pinocchio should do, i.e., go to school, and shout it out. But all the children also know what Pinocchio will do, i.e., go to the circus. The vigour with which the children shout out the answers proves how invested they have become in the story and the course of the story helps reinforce the view that the children’s judgement of what should but will not happen is correct.

Dirck Backer lends Geppetto so much kindness that we feel bad whenever Pinocchio makes a decision that will hurt the old man. No other version of the story highlights how important Geppetto’s love is for this cobbled-together facsimile of a boy. Indeed, in this version is it Geppetto’s love, not some external supernatural source, that does not make Pinocchio a “real boy” but accepts him for what he is.

Bastian Popp’s main role is to accompany the action on the wide variety of instruments, acoustic and non-acoustic, on stage. One especially unusual one is a small metal xylophone mounted on top of a snare drum that allows Popp to make both the harshness of the drum and the magical, droplet-like plinks of the xylophone sound at once.

Signe Kærup Dahl plays a number of the villains of the piece like the circus Barker, the Cat and the Coachman who takes bad boys to Pleasure Island. She is most amusing as the Cat who becomes exasperated with the dimwittedness of Popp’s distinctly unwily Fox and having to convince the poor Fox that they are both evil.

The troupe uses various clever hats and minor costume changes to transform from one character to another. Some help manipulate the Pinocchio puppet while Myrgård is engaged in other things, a fact that really makes Pinocchio seem an entity independent of the actors. While all four actors have the fully white faces of clowns, at certain points, they wear half-masks, especially when they play the bad boys being taken away. Of the many puppet shows I’ve seen, this is the first where a puppet also wears a mask. The “face” that Geppetto gives Pinocchio is a mask and Pinocchio’s nose is made to grow by adding three more masks on top of that mask.

When Pinocchio is pursued by the Terrible Dogfish, Myrgård says, “It’s time for a change”. We and the rest of cast assume this will be a change of costume. But no, she means a change of size. The child-sized Pinocchio is traded for a tiny version to make the Dogfish’s jaws, for that is all we see of it, look more enormous.

Teater Patrasket does not shy away from themes that most North American children’s company would avoid for fear of upsetting children. When The Cat and the Fox leave Pinocchio hanging from a tree with a noose around his neck and when Pinocchio can’t swim any more and sinks down in the sea, Myrgård tells us that if Pinocchio were a real boy he would die. The mentions of death both highlight the advantages Pinocchio as a puppet has over a real child and how fragile and precious the lives of real children are.

When Pinocchio is convulsed with shame for disobeying Geppetto, he tells Geppetto just to kill him. And when Pinocchio and Geppetto are trapped in the belly of the Dogfish and can’t find any wood to burn to make the Dogfish sneeze, Pinocchio offers himself as the wood so at least Geppetto can escape. This offer of self-sacrifice is not in Collodi’s novel, but does emphasize how Pinocchio has changed from being a selfish child to a son who loves his father.

Under Briton Alex Byrne’s direction, Teater Patrasket embodies all the magic and whimsicality of the tale while conveying Collodi’s serious message about how precious life is and that it is love that makes life worth living. It is so inventively conceived it is a perfect introduction to the theatre for children and a perfect reaffirmation of the joy of theatre for adults.

For children aged 8+.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Dirck Backer as Geppetto with Pinocchio; Bastian Popp, Maria Myrgård, Pinocchio and Dirck Backer© 2023 Søren Meisner.

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